Hello again, one and all! I hope you're all well. I am, more or less, in one piece, and a bit of a spring in my step. I loved Unfinished Business, but it was a bit of a trial at some points (giant action scenes combined with a meticulous attention to detail and perfectionism does a neurotic writer make), especially since it bogged down later progress on the main story. Speaking of Unfinished Business, if you haven't read it yet, do. While you should still make sense of this chapter, it will make much more sense if you've read that. Also, it's good.
Now, I have backed up material to work with, and I'm experimenting with shorter, easier to write, and more digestible chapters. This is not a promise of a more rapid update rate, but it is the hope of it, in the run up to ending this part of the story and starting anew with the second part, The Phoenix and the Serpent. By which point we will probably have crossed the 1 million word barrier. I'm not sure whether to be proud or horrified... Oh, and it's quite fluffy, so a nice palate cleanser after all the serious stuff.
There were many things that Carol loved about Harry. Granted, there were a fair few things about him that exasperated her too, but apparently this was perfectly normal – and it was both fond and mutual. One of the few that genuinely distressed her was his difficulty in opening up and accepting that he needed help. However, that was to come. At this point, she was experiencing the more pleasant flip side: Harry was a very, very good listener.
This wasn't the first thing that had happened when she had got back from New Orleans, mind you, having apparently spent the entire flight back snoring on her uncle's shoulder (she denied the snoring). That had been her mother pulling her into the tightest of hugs, closely followed by her younger brothers, with little Joe then impatiently pestering her for stories of what had happened.
She had mostly managed to fob him off, obscuring her direct involvement, which had worked out well enough – seeing X-Wings fly into battle against armies of monsters was cool enough that even a smart nine year old would not necessarily ask too many questions about where they'd come from and how she knew so much. A more accurate, if still edited summary had been given to her mother and Stevie, though it turned out that both Steve and her uncle Jack had thoroughly ratted on her, the traitors.
Her mother's response had been to look at her, smile with damp eyes, pull her into a hug that made Carol wonder just how dormant her inherited serum actually was, and whisper warmly in her ear, "I am so proud of you."
Then, as Carol had blushed from top to toes, she had added, without changing tone in the slightest, "and I am going to murder Doctor Strange."
"Technically, most of it was the Ring's fault," Carol mumbled.
"I don't care, I'm still going to kill him."
Carol eyed her mother as best she could when enwrapped in a hug. "Mom? Are you… you know. Okay?"
Her mother pulled away from her for a moment and looked in her the eye. "Honey, I've just found out that my daughter was turned into a tree by a witch from fairy tales and was not only chosen by the magic of the Earth itself to stop her, but followed through, when even Merlin himself couldn't manage it. I am so proud of you that I could burst, but no, I am not even remotely okay."
Carol shifted uncomfortably. "I'm fine, mom," she said.
"That as may be," her mother said, giving her a look of 'you're not and I know you're not because you shouldn't be, but I'm not pushing it for now'. "But think about how you felt whenever your boyfriend ended up putting himself through something similar. Were you okay afterwards?"
Carol sighed. "Okay, you got me there," she said.
Her mother smiled. "I am proud of you, Carol," she said. "But I reserve the right to freak out, just a little. It's why your uncle, grandmother, and great-grandfather are drinking themselves under the table right now."
Carol frowned. "Steve can't get drunk. Which means that grandma can't either. And probably uncle Jack too, nowadays, now that I think about it."
Marie rolled her eyes. "Jack mentioned something about 'Asgardian booze'," she said.
"Well, if it can get Thor drunk, fair enough," Carol muttered.
"Indeed," her mother said. "And speaking of Thor, I'd be prepared. Your boyfriend is apparently also at the Mansion and will probably also freak out."
"Well, turnabout is fair play," Carol quipped.
Perhaps it was.
Certainly, when they met, she had been both surprised and delighted when he had greeted her with a hug, and once they repaired to his room (door open sufficient to satisfy propriety), graduated with surprising speed from twining fingers together to loosely cuddling. In this case, it meant him resting his head on her chest, one arm lightly draped over her stomach, the other slightly, but not entirely, underneath her back.
In other words, his demeanour was generally relaxed, and had become more so as he'd apparently got into the optimum position. Optimum, in this case, apparently meant the one where he could most clearly hear her heartbeat. Carol did not usually coo, but her heart had melted a little bit when she'd realised that.
However, it was also position carefully chosen so that he could slip out of it and into a defensive stance in the blink of an eye. Carol, recognising the hint of tension, had been very careful to ensure that her arms hung just loosely around him, close enough that he knew they were there, and loose enough that he knew they could not be the moment he wished.
It was, as they said, a work in progress. And it gave her hope.
"So," she said. "Not that this isn't a nice surprise – on many, many levels. But what brings you back here, right now?"
"Strange sent me," Harry said.
Carol blinked. "He's arranging snuggle time, now?"
Harry let out a surprised chuckle, one that reverberated through Carol's chest and made her heart flutter a little. "I hadn't thought of it like that," he murmured.
"Well, he is nice, sometimes," Carol observed. "But…"
"He usually has at least three reasons for doing anything," Harry said tiredly. "I know."
Carol was silent for a few moments, then looked down at him and snorted. "Something happened on your end, didn't it?"
That got a wry, slightly bitter laugh. "That's an understatement."
"Care to overstate it?"
"The end of the world as we know it."
Carol rolled her eyes, and this time, the laughter was more amused.
"You did say overstate it," he pointed out.
"I did," she conceded. "Mostly, I just think it's kind of ironic, because, well… snap. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee mine was bigger than yours."
Harry looked up at her, raising an eyebrow. "The school trip didn't go to plan?"
"You haven't heard?" she countered. "It was kind of… global."
That got a grimace and a rubbed brow. "I heard that something happened, something massive," he said. "I could even feel it in the air before I was sent here. Magic feels different at the moment, more potent, more alive. There was a lot of people talking about stuff too, at school, that someone was messing with magic across the world and that something had happened to the Moon, but…"
"You were occupied?" Carol suggested, amused, because of course he was. Only Harry could get himself in enough trouble that he'd miss Nimue's unleashing of Project Pegasus, her attempt to alter the world in the favour of magic and its wielders by practically ripping open the world's ley lines – and then, when she found that most weren't so inclined to go along with her plans, to burn it down and start anew.
"I was exhausted," Harry said frankly. "From what I could tell, what happened everywhere else happened at the same time as I was in a massive fight with… well, that's a whole story by itself."
"It looked kind of like some bronze statue," Carol said idly, and at his incredulous look, smiled wryly. "Let's just say that the Green Lantern Ring paid a return visit, and showed off a bit more of its box of tricks."
Harry stared at her for a long moment. "That's one of the biggest understatements I've ever heard, I just know it," he said. "I was in a massive fight, and it seems that I was too busy and then too asleep afterwards to notice what happened everywhere else. And what happened was… it took up a lot of emotional energy. And focus. The fight was the easy part."
"To be fair, Hogwarts is the kind of place that probably shed the worst side-effects," Carol agreed, then cocked an eyebrow. "The fight was the easy part?"
"I'll tell you later, because it sounds like you have way more to tell," Harry said. He shook his head at Carol's questioning glance. "You first. I've got a lot to unpack, but I've got it handled already."
Carol's look was both fond and utterly disbelieving. Harry sighed.
"Okay, so it's not handled, but it's not trauma or anything," he said. "Just… complicated." He waved a hand vaguely. "Seriously, I've had so much worse."
"With you, that is not hard," Carol said dryly.
Harry snorted, and this time, he sat up, legs tucked up as he leaned against her side, their gazes level as he studied her, expression suddenly very serious.
"Something happened to you," he said, sounding absolutely certain. "I don't know what, but it was something and it was serious and it was so much bigger than mine – the Ring alone tells me that. And even if it didn't, your expression, what you're feeling… that does." He took her hand, squeezing. "If you want to talk about it… I'm here."
Carol took a careful breath as memories flickered to the surface, of creeping paralysis, of skin and bone twisting and shifting and changing… then she closed her eyes, slamming her mental defences down. For a moment, nothing happened, then there was a gentle tap on those defences. It wasn't a request for entry, even a polite one. For one thing, when she and Harry were in such close proximity, the difficulty was usually staying out of one another's heads, mental defences or no.
Instead, it was a carefully timed disruption to the roiling, spiralling memories, followed by a gentle and very carefully calibrated leaning of Harry's mental presence against hers, a steady pressure of warmth and support.
I am here, it said. You are safe, and I am here, for whatever you need of me. I am here for you, for as long as you need me.
She closed her eyes and leaned in, mentally and physically, letting him pull her head into the hollow of his neck, letting her cheeks and hair press against his skin, his arms wrapping around her with careful strength as his inhibitions dissolved. His mind wove through her like rivers made of gentle sunlight and love, banishing the shadows to the corners of her mind, making her feel warm and human and alive.
"I… once I start, I'm not sure I'll be able to stop," she said. "About the good, and the bad."
Harry tipped up her chin and looked her in the eye. Then, he leaned down and pressed a feather-light kiss against her lips, neither brief, nor lingering.
The story took, in the end, several hours to fully tell. The Sun set and the Moon rose. The latter was still full, to great bafflement and general consternation among scientists, religious authorities, and wildlife alike. The fact that it still had visible forests and small seas on it, even more so, and they only provided mute support to Carol's tale.
In all that time, Carol only stopped speaking to moisten her dried and rasping throat, with a glass of water conjured silently by Harry. Likewise, in all that time, he didn't speak even once, and hardly even moved, like a statue carved of shadows and starlight.
The only exception was when she reached the part where she had been turned into a tree, when she had reached the sudden and horrifying realisation of what had happened to her, when she had believed that she was dead or worse. When her breath had hitched and tears had flown, words shying away from her mouth at the sheer memory, he had taken her hands in his, before scrutinising her carefully, then abruptly pulling her into a hug, gently rocking back and forth.
"Breathe with me," he said softly.
And she did. For minutes or hours, she did, matching her breath to his, focusing on nothing but the two of them. As she did, she felt his mind weave through hers once again, as gentle and as powerful as summer sunlight, threading warmth and movement through her body and her soul, lighting the way out of the darkness of her own thoughts. He is life, and he is fire, and he warms her from top to toe.
"I didn't know you could do that," she said quietly, after the tears ran dry, the shaking stopped, and the stiffness faded. For all his raw power, and largely because of it, Harry was still decidedly cautious about exploring his telepathic powers. As a result, his use of them was far more rough and ready than almost all the other psychics Carol had encountered. It worked, and he always took care to be gentle. Excruciating care, in fact, as if frightened of breaking something.
Given her hike in strength, Carol could empathise with that, especially since his strength was orders of magnitude greater than her physical enhancements (morphing uru shield notwithstanding) and affected things that were far more fragile and harder to repair than physical objects.
He'd got better over the last few months, and had no longer been so afraid of himself, something she'd seen in the increased ease of their communication and interplay of their mental link. That careful, easing exploration, however, was miles away from this, as smooth and graceful as any of his downright balletic aerial manoeuvres, full of measured assurance and not one drop of controlled fear.
"I've been practising," he said quietly, then twitched a smile. "Also, I spent several hours with a whole person in my head, and they came out intact. It helped set me a little at ease."
Carol looked up at him, suddenly very curious, and got a patient look in return. It was quite plain that that story was not going to be shared before she had finished hers. If she chose to stop there, that would be more than fine, but Harry was apparently being quite firm about letting her have her say first. She huffed and, to her surprise, found that the prospect was easier. The worst, after all, had already happened.
The rest came quickly after that, Harry's eyes widening to gratifyingly tennis ball-like extents. Carol had previously thought he was jaded practically beyond astonishment by his experiences, but apparently, even he had limits. And it was astonishment, far more than mere surprise or disbelief.
In fact, there was neither of the latter: Harry was, after all, very well acquainted with the scheming of Strange and, on consideration, his grandfather. He was also entirely familiar with the world going nuts (which might, in retrospect, explain why he hadn't done more than raise an eyebrow at some of New York's remodelled architecture). And even if there wasn't the connection between them, even if he wasn't entirely familiar with the kind of oddities that grand-scale magic could generate, he took every word she said with absolute trust. It was humbling, and a little bit terrifying.
"… then, I kind of split the Ring. Again. Permanently, this time. That much power is too much of a burden for anyone, physically and mentally. No one can be everywhere at once, and if they don't get as lucky as I was, they'd burn out if they tried to match what I did. Instead, in theory, every one of the Lanterns is about as powerful as the original Ring normally was, maybe a little less. Until, you know, I overclocked it."
Harry held her gaze for a long moment, then chuckled softly.
"What?" Carol asked, frowning.
He looked up at her, a smile of both amusement and wonder, radiating thoughts of how-are-you-real-how-can't-you-see-how-amazing-you-are. Carol flushed like a sunrise, and even more at his next words, soft, warm, both utterly frank and almost reverent.
"You never cease to amaze me."
"Shut up," she mumbled.
"Carol," he said. "You controlled an insanely vast amount of power, without experience or safety catches, more power than practically any god I know of other than my grandfather. Not only that, but you did it while fighting a literal legend with all that power, all the experience you didn't have, and without even a fraction your restraint, who was trying to rewrite the world – who did, by accident, rewrite the Moon and Mars. And probably a few other bits of the solar system too, come to think of it. You contained her, you outsmarted her, and you beat her."
He let the words settle, and Carol's cheeks warm even more.
"You didn't just save the world, you didn't just fix it, you also changed it for the better. And that is not taking into account everything you did before you took up the Ring, which, frankly, would turn even more of my hair white all by itself," he said, and gently cupped her face in his hands, pressing his forehead to hers. "You are amazing."
Carol flushed a deeper red, but smiled. "And you," she said. "Are every bit as amazing and you keep refusing to admit it."
"You mean like you were about to?" Harry asked wryly.
Carol wrinkled her nose. "Fine," she said. "We're both amazing. Happy?"
That got a soft smile. "With you? Always."
"Sap," Carol muttered, unable to conceal a smile of her own. She looked up at him through her eyelashes, uncharacteristically shy. "I am too, you know. Always happy. With you."
"Even when I'm being an idiot?" Harry asked, his cheeks now bright red too.
"Even then. Though, then, it's buried under me being annoyed at you for being an idiot, or wanting to hug you because of your terrible self-esteem which sometimes makes you an idiot, or both."
Harry chuckled then, impulsively, kissed her. The kiss was met with equal fire, hands sliding under shirts and around backs, legs hooking around to pull them closer together and into the backs of jeans to yank them down and squirm free, the two teens rolling over and over to free themselves constraint.
The only sounds were urgent, whispered breaths, skin and clothing rustling against one another, the soundtrack of the inevitable culmination of a combination of hormones, keyed up emotions, and a psychic connection.
Then, there was a rustle, a squawk, and very definite thump.
Unfortunately – or, perhaps, fortunately – they had not taken into account the size of the bed.
There was a very long moment as they stayed exactly where they were, sprawled over one another. Then, Carol raised her head from the floor, and met Harry's mortified gaze.
"We," she said, enunciating very clearly. "Are never telling anyone about this. Ever."
"No," Harry agreed, carefully rolling off his girlfriend to lie beside her, tilting his head to give her an impish grin. "I've had worse landings, though."
"Well, not all of us were so well cushioned," Carol grumbled, sitting up and rubbing her back.
"First of all, you have pointy bits as well as soft bits," Harry said. "Second of all…" He stood, offering her a hand up. "… I think I can do something about that."
Anyone listening to the purred moan coming from Carol's mouth at this point might have been a combination of a) mortified and inclined to leave very quickly, b) amused and inclined to either listen or leave, giggling, c) inclined to step in very quickly before the occurrence of Shenanigans.
Shenanigans fully deserving of the capital letter, Shenanigans that it did not merely imply, or even promise, but outright gloated about, waving them like a battle flag. However, it was the middle of the night, everyone was asleep, and as it happened, such Shenanigans were not actually on the cards. The pleasures of the flesh took many forms, and this one was entirely non-sexual.
As Carol would later smugly explain to her friends (after a number of mortifying and externally entertaining misunderstandings and misinterpretations), psychic boyfriends gave very good massages. Creative psychic boyfriends with added magic and an intimate understanding of human musculature, paying intimate attention to each bump and bruise, gave positively brain melting ones.
As for said boyfriend, Harry would later explain with a remarkably straight face and pious tone that the act was its own reward. This claim was entirely accurate, while also leaving entire volumes written between the lines – such as the fact that thanks to the throes of passion, they had once again been in the situation where 'the one layer rule' was being upheld on the merest of technicalities. Then, on being informed of the offered massage, Carol had whipped off her shirt, remarking that a bra, even a partially detached one, would satisfy propriety so far as she was concerned.
"Besides, it's nothing you haven't seen before," she added blithely, before her eyes widened and face paled as if she wished she could do nothing more than erase that comment from the record, given the memories and trauma it might stir up.
Thankfully, however, Harry merely blushed and directed her somewhat awkwardly to please lie down on the bed before a) her bra fell off, b) someone actually woke up and walked in. Then, he went to work.
Suffice to say, both would have reason for smug, lazy smiles the next morning.
At this point, however, most of Carol's higher brain functions were melting into a puddle of bliss, while Harry was trying to keep his above the waistline and failing miserably.
"Yes?" he said teasingly, pausing, and earning a disgruntled whine as he did so.
There was a mumbled reply.
"Carol, even my hearing isn't that good."
Carol grudgingly raised her head from the pillow, cracked open one eye and shot a gimlet glare at her boyfriend.
"I said 'why are you stopping?'"
"Well, you said 'oh god'," Harry said, maintaining a prizewinning innocent expression.
"Well, actually, you moaned it."
Harry raised an eyebrow and mentally relayed a replay of the memory in question across their connection. Carol flushed.
"Fine. Again, so?"
"Well, I wasn't sure what that meant," Harry said innocently. "Are you saying 'oh god' because something hurt, or because -"
Carol's glare intensified. "I can see where this is going. I can see it on your face. I can see it on your brain. If you value the contents of your pants, don't."
Harry blinked, catching her train of thought. "Um. Actually, I was going to ask if you were referring to me. With the whole 'oh god' thing."
Carol eyed him, considering this. "If we didn't have this connection, I would never believe you," she said frankly.
"Honestly, I'm not entirely sure I would believe me. I'm not that..."
"Chaste? I hadn't noticed," came Carol's dry response, before letting out a squeak as Harry absent-mindedly reached up and massaged a spot between her shoulder blades. He had known how to push her buttons before, and spending the last couple of hours steadily working his way over her entire body with meticulous attention to detail had only refined that knowledge. "That is cheating," she growled indignantly as he smirked.
"All's fair in love and war," Harry said smugly, before coughing and going pink. "Also, um..."
"Mmmm... so that had occurred to you," Carol said knowingly, and sniggered. "Pervert."
"Oh come on! Not fair!" Harry complained in a display of instant hypocrisy, going as red as his mother's hair.
"Under the circumstances, you are forgiven," Carol said lazily, waving it away.
"Oh, thank you so much for your graciousness," Harry muttered sarcastically as he restarted in earnest.
"You're welcome," Carol said smugly, closing her eyes again. "Though seriously, it's okay. I mean, I'm not sure if it's sweet or ridiculous that your first thought when I said... that is to make the cheesiest joke imaginable, not the sex joke." She considered it, then smiled fondly. "I'm going with adorable."
"It's one of my biggest selling points, apparently."
"Well, duh." She wriggled to get comfortable on the bed. "Really, I'd almost be worried if your mind hadn't gone there at some point." A very satisfied feline smile slid up the visible half of her face. "Mine certainly did."
Harry swallowed and tried to think of cold showers. Unfortunately, his imagination kept suggesting ways to warm those showers up. And that coldness had all sorts of interesting effects on the human body, didn't it just...
"Just you wait until it's my turn," he muttered.
The smile twitched up even further, accompanied by a pleased hum. "Oh, I'm looking forward to it." She opened an eye once more, this time sparkling. "Then we'll see who's moaning for god."
Somehow, Harry found himself very okay with that.
Eventually, however, the massage ended and sleep called. Even though had talked, and indeed massaged, late into the night, and they were teenagers (who proverbially slept like the dead) only snatching about five hours sleep was no great hardship. Being superhuman had its inconveniences, but it also had some very clear upsides.
The downsides, however, included the fact that there were other early risers in the Mansion, one of whom was now firmly ensconced in the role of Carol's dad. More to the point, despite popular perception, Steve Rogers was nowhere near naïve enough to miss the implications of rumpled hair and yesterday's clothing from two teenagers who'd emerged from the same room wearing lazy smiles. In the case of Carol, there was even humming, something previously believed impossible before her first coffee.
He folded his arms and raised a forbidding eyebrow. Harry squirmed. Carol, blithely unaware, stole Steve's coffee, slurping half of it down in one go, before catching his expression and freezing with the mug to her lips.
Bucky, also awake and adept enough to keep his coffee out of Carol's reach, chuckled. "Nothing happened," he said, directing his words at Steve, and tapped his nose. "Sex has a very distinct smell."
It might have been assumed that both teenagers had run through their month's allowance of blushing the previous night.
That assumption would be wrong.
Steve continued to give them both a forbidding look. "Does it now?" he asked seriously. "Do you think I'm likely to be smelling it any time soon?"
Bucky smirked. "Ask Darcy," he said. "She's running the bets."
"… kill you both," Carol mumbled, as Harry looked like he was hoping that the floor would open up and swallow him – and, indeed, like he was seriously considering making it happen.
Steve nodded seriously. "I will," he said. Then, after a long, drawn out moment, his expression cracked, revealing bubbling laughter.
Carol stared at him like he'd grown another head. "You were fucking with me," she said in disbelief, then looked at Harry. "You were fucking with both of us."
"Full marks," Bucky said ironically.
"Okay, first, fuck both of you, second, how did you do that?" Carol demanded.
"I used to be an actor, Carol," Steve said, voice thick with amusement. "And command meetings taught me a whole lot more about hiding my emotions."
"Yeah, but, super psychic," Carol said, gesturing at her boyfriend.
"Doesn't work so well if you're too sleepy to think much," Harry mumbled, by now raiding the fridge.
"Or too embarrassed," Bucky supplied.
His answer came in the form of a raised middle finger from behind the fridge door.
Steve, meanwhile, had gone over to Carol, pulling her into one-armed hug – and deftly filching back his half-finished coffee. "I'm proud of you," he said.
"What, for not…" Carol began, then trailed off.
Steve chuckled. "That too," he said. "Both of you," he added, projecting his voice to include Harry. "Post-battle can be pretty fraught at the best of times, let alone what you went through, Carol. You too, Harry – yours might not have been on the same scale, but from what I heard it was no cakewalk either."
This sparked Carol's curiosity, and caused her to give her boyfriend an inquisitive look as he emerged with a bottle of milk.
"Even without that connection of yours," Steve continued. "Well."
"Well what?" Carol asked.
"Well, you're living evidence of where that can lead you," Steve said evenly. "And delightful as you are, Carol, I'd hope that you might learn from my mistakes rather than repeat them."
More blushing ensued, and normally, the two might have beat a hasty retreat. However, superhuman metabolisms might not be bothered by a lack of sleep, they objected vigorously to a lack of food, so Carol instead settled for inhaling her breakfast while glowering at her now confirmed 'dad'. Who, naturally, smirked, because sometimes even Captain America was a little shit.
Once breakfast vanished, the two – finally – beat a hasty retreat, with Carol only waiting for long enough to change and wash to ask the question.
"So, when you said that your bit was the end of the world too, how much of an overstatement is it?"
"On a general level? Big," a now entirely awake Harry said frankly, then grimaced. "On a personal level? Less so."
Carol considered the possibilities. "Which one of them found out?" she asked.
Harry propped his head up, looking at her in surprise.
"You're keeping secrets from both of your best friends at Hogwarts, about their families," Carol said bluntly. "Big ones. Ones that you're not authorised to share, sure. But somehow, I doubt they'd see it that way. So. Which one found out?"
Harry sighed. "Hermione," he said. "She worked it out."
"By noticing the resemblance?"
"By being hijacked by an eldritch horror which activated her mutant powers by force. Omega class mutant powers."
"Oh. That would do it."
"Yeah. Funnily enough, there aren't that many Omega class mutant chaos mages out there. And even fewer of them are brunettes."
"You are not half as funny as you think you are," Carol said with mock severity, overlaying real concern. "Seriously, though… god, that must have been awful."
"Pretty much," Harry said, and explained what had happened, starting with the nature of the Fortress and leaving out no details. As he had the previous night, Carol listened without interruption, though her silence was more appalled than anything else, save only for a brief moment of amusement when Harry recounted how he had been sure that he'd punted the spirit of the Fortress out of Hermione's body and into his own head, and very abruptly discovered that he'd done the exact opposite. When he got to the parts with Wanda, she winced, hard. Eventually, his tale – shorter than hers, more confined, but in some ways even more fraught – came to an end and she mulled it over for several moments.
"On second thoughts," she said eventually. "'Awful' is an understatement."
Harry sighed. "That was more or less my opinion."
It was generally accepted that Carol understood her complicated mess of a boyfriend better than most. Having a telepathic connection was useful in this regard, but so was being one of the few people he was actually willing to open up to. That number was increasing, slowly, thanks to time, healing, and what Carol assumed was an extremely patient therapist, but it was still quite small - and he tended to be fairly selective about how far he was willing to open up to, and on what subjects.
Carol was aware and grateful that she was one of the people with whom he was very much unselective. She was also aware that she did not know everything about him (something which naturally went both ways). This was perfectly natural; relationships were, after all, a process of discovery. However, she inwardly observed, there was a difference between knowing something in theory and being bluntly confronted with a realisation.
In this case, that realisation was that while Harry's thought processes could be convoluted to the point of being deeply devious, and a number of his morals could be similarly complicated, others were set in stone. Or perhaps vibranium. This specific one seemed to boil down to: "do right by your loved ones."
The problem here was that the secret of Wanda being Hermione's mother was now out, as was the fact that he'd known that particular secret and not said a word, and the inevitably ugly fallout was in play (and all the worse for how that particular secret had come out).
On the one hand, by not saying anything at Wanda's request, Harry had been protecting his beloved godmother - and, arguably, his dear friend from the immense amounts of baggage that her biological mother brought with her. On the other hand, he had also been keeping a very important, very personal secret from said dear friend, one with consequences and risks far beyond the emotional.
In short, doing right by one had not been doing right by the other. As a result, Harry's brain had fused somewhat, and then retreated into defensive sulking as a cover for a moral crisis. Carol, meanwhile, had been left with both significant sympathy and minor irritation towards Hermione. She had deserved to know, after all.
However, Carol reserved the right to be annoyed at the fact that she'd taken at least some of it out on someone who was in a bind - while also recognising on some level that that annoyance/irritation wasn't exactly fair, given the circumstances. Immediately post-possession, discovery of reality warping powers, and decidedly unwanted personal revelations was not really the time for fine distinctions over guilt. If pressed, Carol would claim girlfriend bias.
The same mix of emotions had been directed towards Harry, because he had absolutely been in a bind. On the other hand, this could and should have been seen coming a mile off. Anyone else, she'd have just told to take their lumps because they should have bitten the bullet and said something. With Harry, on the other hand, there was a recognition that here was someone who could and would stare down mind-melting eldritch horrors without blinking, but was utterly paralysed with terror by the thought of stirring up any form of emotional conflict with someone he cared about.
Finally, the people that Carol was most annoyed at were Wanda, Loki, and Harry's headmaster, Professor Dumbledore. Wanda should absolutely have seen this coming, even if she was a massive bundle of issues regarding family (and considering what Carol knew about that, both about Wanda's experiences and, frankly, her own, she couldn't blame her), and absolutely shouldn't have put Harry in the middle like that. She should have known that it was completely unfair.
Loki and Professor Dumbledore, meanwhile, had both absolutely known and said nothing, when they'd have been perfectly placed to cut the metaphorical knot of emotional problems that Wanda and Harry had both tied themselves up in, just by saying something. All else aside, they were Hermione's fucking teachers, it was their responsibility.
Her mood regarding all of this had not been at all helped by the fact that Harry's principle of "do right by your loved ones" seemed to also translate to, in this instance, being constitutionally incapable of saying sorry. Because that would imply that doing right by his loved ones was the wrong thing to do.
Really, if he hadn't done her the courtesy to listen to her story about Project Pegasus, made pertinent comments and suggestions about it and her very weird shield, provided sympathy and admiration in appropriate measure, and provided a very useful insight into one of Doctor Strange's cryptic remarks about Monica, she'd be sorely tempted to drown him. Also, it did help a little that he was palpably miserable about the whole thing and the mental conflict, rather than just being obstinate for the sake of it (which he was also perfectly capable of doing). He'd helped her, so she'd help him. That was how this sort of thing worked.
As a result, she sighed and kept her patience, sitting back and thinking as she idly twiddled her fingers through his hair. One advantage of a boyfriend with hair as messy as his brain, she mused, was that it made for a wonderful finger toy. Very relaxing, really.
"Sometimes," she said eventually. "There isn't a right choice. Not really." She tilted her chin down to look at green eyes poking up through a black and white fringe. "I mean, you know that."
That got a profound sigh, and a grudging nod that scraped against the bed sheets.
"You're not perfect, Harry," she continued. "You did what you thought was right. Turned out that it was right for one person, and not for another, and maybe you could have made a better call. Maybe. But you didn't, and this is the way it is."
"I wish it wasn't," came the gloomy reply. This, Carol thought, was at least better than grouchy. Gloomy was one step away from resigned acceptance.
"If wishes were horses," Carol said, shrugging, then grimaced. "Look, do you think Hermione had the right to know?"
This silence was reflective of an internal struggle, so Carol waited it out.
"Okay. Do you think Wanda had the right to keep it from her?"
This time, the silence was full of profound consternation.
"Are we talking indefinitely, or immediately?"
Carol did not dignify that with words, instead tilting her chin once more to deliver a 'I-am-not-impressed-by-your-smartassery' look. She was quite good at them - usually thanks to being on the receiving end. Harry gave in with a sigh.
"I don't know," he said. "I think she had the right to pick a time to discuss it."
That, Carol supposed, was fair.
"But you think that she should have actually picked a time rather than just kicked it down the line to avoid dealing with it," she said bluntly. Harry looked up at her, a little offended on his godmother's behalf, and caught an unimpressed look coming the other way, along with a mental message. Steve did the exact same thing after he found out. I definitely didn't appreciate it, and he had way more excuse than Wanda.
Harry grimaced. "I should have pressed her to talk about it," he said.
"That probably wouldn't have got you anywhere," Carol observed. "But yeah, that would have been better." She looked at Harry. "Tell her that: that you should have pushed for Wanda to tell and you're sorry you didn't."
"She's still mad that I kept it from her at all," Harry said sourly.
"She's got reason to be," Carol pointed out. "But you'd also been asked by the next best thing you have to a mom to keep it secret. Put like that, you're at least acknowledging that, shit, you should have done something rather than just keep your mouth shut - but you also had reason to keep your mouth shut."
Harry grumbled a little.
"What was that?"
"I said 'fine. Good point.'"
"That's what I thought."
Harry sighed, so she decided to throw him a bone.
"Look, Harry. Wanda is awesome. She's smart, badass, and hell, she's stylish too. And she cares, about lots of people, but you especially. She loves you to pieces. I like her, I really do. But she's still human. She's got issues, starting with some big old daddy issues." She grimaced. "Takes one to know one, believe me."
"Takes two," Harry murmured. When Carol quirked an eyebrow, thinking that all things considered, Harry's relationship with his father was astonishingly smooth on both ends, he smiled wryly. "Mine are grandfather issues."
"Oh," she said, quickly reviewing everything she knew of Odin and his relationship with Harry. It wasn't much, but it was enough. "Yeah, that would do it. Anyway, Wanda's got them worse than either of us. I mean, Magneto as your father and Strange a.k.a. the most fundamentally manipulative and emotionally unavailable man in the universe as your foster dad? That would screw anyone up. And though she hides it well, most of the time, it definitely screwed her up."
Harry grimaced, but did not argue.
"So, she's got issues. She's not perfect. She can still fuck up. And believe me, she fucked up. She fucked up, and while she absolutely didn't mean to, she put you in a pretty shitty position, with a shitty choice to make," Carol said. "Which I will be having words with her about, by the way."
"Carol," Harry said, frowning.
She met his gaze, and he sighed.
Please, I appreciate… your intentions, he said. But you didn't see Wanda after it all came out. After Hermione screamed at her, after… after everything. Look. Just… look.
As easily as breathing, Carol could see just what had happened, from Harry's point of view. She could see the look on Wanda's face, feel the pain, grief, and realised fear, overflowing from a cauldron of self-loathing as they poured off her, so thick in the air you could almost taste it. She could almost hear, as Harry had, the sound of Wanda's heart breaking.
Okay, she said, subdued as the memory faded. It can wait.
Harry nodded, acknowledgement rather than satisfaction. She couldn't blame him. There wasn't really anything to be satisfied about in that memory.
That's why you lashed out at Hermione, huh? Carol guessed.
"Yeah," Harry said, and sighed. "It wasn't my best decision, but…"
"It was wrong," Carol said, not unkindly. "And it was unfair, and I honestly can't blame you in the slightest, because if I did I would be the biggest hypocrite in the world."
She shook her head.
"From the outside, you made a wrong choice. But if it helps, I don't think there were really any right ones. I mean, I'd say that telling Hermione would have definitely been less wrong, but… hindsight is 20:20. I get why you made that call. It was wrong, but I get it, I really do."
Harry nodded. "I'm not sure if I can fix it," he said frankly.
"Do you want to?" Carol asked. "Does she?"
When Harry snapped his head up in indignation, she raised her hands placatingly.
"Look, there's a big mess here, including a lot of things that weren't said and should have been, and some very complicated feelings," she said. "Also, you said yourself that a monster that literally feeds on fear turned itself into some freaky copy of you specifically to torment her. Going by everything else you said, it knew exactly what buttons to press, especially on people without experience fighting psychic horrors."
"She's scared of me," Harry said. It wasn't angry, or sad, or horrified. It was just resigned. "Of course she is."
Carol grimaced. "Honestly? Yes," she said. "Harry… I don't know what's going on with, Hermione, or Ron at the moment. I know that something's up from what you've said, them too, and I've guessed more. I haven't asked, and I won't, but even if I didn't know anything else, I'd be able to say that if a fear-eating mind-reading monster decides that wearing your face is one of the best ways to scare two of your best friends to death, then something is really fucking wrong in that relationship."
Harry nodded tiredly. "I know," he said quietly. "It's… it's not that I've been dwelling on it, but I noticed." He rubbed his face and sighed. "I'm not stupid. Fear isn't necessarily rational, but I know that sort of terror doesn't come out of nowhere, even if it's just part of another nightmare. I know that sometimes…"
He swallowed, wrestling with something painful within himself. Carol waited him out, taking his hand and once more staying silent.
"Sometimes," he said, words measured and careful, each one passing from his lips like he was removing broken glass. "I can be scary".
He closed his eyes and his next words came out in a small, heartbroken voice.
"I don't want to scare my friends."
"I know that," Carol said quietly. "You know that. And I'm willing to bet that they know that too, that you'd rather cut your hands off than hurt us. But… Harry, you scare people sometimes. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. And sometimes, when you're scaring people, there's collateral damage. Even if it's not them, or me, that you're trying to scare, you do. It's like you said: fear is not rational. There might be a reason for it, and they might know better, logically. But that doesn't change the fact that it's there, in here."
"Including you?" Harry asked softly.
Carol shook her head, firm and definite.
"No," she said. "Psychic connections come in handy sometimes, and ours tell me, both up here –" She touched her head. "And down here –" She touched her heart. "That I am safe with you. I am not scared of you, Harry. Scared for you, yes, for a lot of the same reasons that you scare other people sometimes." She took his hand and squeezed. "But I am not scared of you, Harry Thorson. Not now, not ever."
Harry swallowed painfully, and nodded, saying nothing.
"It's not on the same scale, not even close, but you know Peter Parker?" Carol said eventually. "Half the time when he spoke up in New Orleans and I turned to him, he looked like he was expecting a smackdown. Why? Because I lost my temper at him once, when he didn't deserve it. Rationally, he knew I wasn't going to yell at him, or even smack him. But fear… fear sticks. Overcoming it isn't done overnight, even when you know exactly why."
"You think it can be done?" Harry asked, looking up at her despondently.
"If you try, and if they want to try, yes," Carol said. "Though, uh. I think there's a few other issues you're going to have to get through first."
"Like lying," Harry said sourly. "Even though –" He stopped abruptly, then exhaled sharply. "This," he predicted. "Is not going to be easy."
"No," Carol said bluntly. "No, it is not. Is it worth it?"
Harry met her gaze and nodded firmly. "Absolutely."
And there we end this chapter. On a… well, not a cliffhanger, because it's not that high stakes. An emotional tipping point, perhaps? The beginning of the repair of friendship past? Or is it the beginning of the end? Or is it something else entirely? We shall see.
Anyway, fluff I promised and fluff I provided. Also serious emotional stuff. I hope you are all satisfied.